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Are Robots Injuring Surgery Patients?

In the past few years, robotics has made its way into our hospitals, claiming to be more exact than hands-on surgery. "At the console, [certain operations] can be performed effectively and precisely, translating to superior quality," one surgeon said about the da Vinci robot. But could they cause more harm than good?

Some medical and safety experts believe there is no reason for the surge in robotic surgery, attributing the growth to exaggerated marketing by the robots' manufacturers. And they worry that too many surgeries are being improperly handled through the use of robots. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one of the organizations scrutinizing the da Vinci robot. It has received numerous reports of medical errors involving the robots, including:

  • A hysterectomy death caused by a robot that hit a blood vessel
  • A perforated colon during prostate surgery
  • A death following robotic spleen surgery
  • A death caused by a punctured intestine and ensuing infection

The FDA will determine whether these and other injuries and deaths were caused by the da Vinci robot or are complications that would have arisen had the surgery been done by hand. They will also look at the surgeons' use of the da Vinci to determine if doctor negligence played a role.

In fact, most of the defective medical device lawsuits against Intuitive Surgical, the Sunnyvale manufacturer of the da Vinci robot, have cited "inadequate training" as a cause of the injuries. According to Inuitive Surgical, physicians are educated on how to use the robot, but do not receive training on doing specific procedures with the da Vinci robot.

Robot surgeons and training are expensive. Are they worth it? If the robots cause more harm than good, it is time hospitals reconsider how they handle difficult surgeries.

Source: The Associated Press, "Robot hot among surgeons but FDA taking a new look," Lindsey Tanner, April 9, 2013

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